Clippers' Doc Rivers goes from voice of reason to loud distraction
For the last three weeks, Doc Rivers has been the most inspirational leader in Los Angeles, the strongest man in the NBA, a beacon of restraint and respect amid a raging storm of stupidity.
Rivers has been the Clippers' official face when the rest of the front office wanted to hide. Rivers has spoken for Clippers players too angry to put their thoughts into words. As owner Donald Sterling was being banned by the NBA for life for his racist remarks, Rivers came to life as the powerful symbol of hope and change. With every thoughtful word to the media or understanding gesture to his players, Rivers rose so far above the muck it appeared he would be one of the few to emerge from this mess without once losing his cool.
Then, on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, Doc got dirty. Handed a bad officials' call that led to a devastatingly botched playoff game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rivers fell to Earth with a loud and unseemly crash. He railed at the referees after the play while his team stood around in confusion. He ripped the referees after the game with words that implied he thought the series had already been lost.
It was the harshest and most prolonged criticism of officials that many longtime NBA followers had ever heard. Folks in the Chesapeake Energy Arena interview even lost count of the number of times Rivers pounded on the interview room table. It was as if that bad possession decision in the final 11 seconds of Game 5 caused Rivers to finally pop a vein and bleed out all the anger and frustration he kept so smartly hidden since Sterling's racist audio recording threw his postseason into chaos.
It was a rage that was somewhat understandable. Yet it was also a rage that was potentially very damaging, for as strong and sensible Doc Rivers had become, it was the very distraction he has been begging his players to avoid.
The Thunder won the game, 105-104, and now leads the second-round playoff duel three games to two. The teams meet again at Staples Center on Thursday night in Game 6, with Rivers facing the awkward task of convincing the Clippers to play through the same sort of adversity he could not.
"I was very upset last night, and rightly so, but you've got to move on," Rivers told reporters Wednesday at practice.
Will they? Can they? It's one thing to blow a 13-point lead in the last four minutes. It's another thing to blow a seven-point lead in the final 49 seconds. Yet harder still is to experience all this while watching your coach storm through a potential sideline strategy moment vainly screaming, "It's our ball! It's our ball! It's our ball!."
This is when the meltdown began, with 11.3 seconds remaining, after officials Tony Brothers, Bennett Salvatore and Tom Washington seemingly made up for a missed foul call on Matt Barnes against Reggie Jackson by awarding the ball to the Thunder, even though Jackson had clearly knocked it out of bounds on his own.
At that point the Clippers still led by two points. One defensive stop and they still probably win the game. Yet Rivers was so adamantly and dramatically distraught about the call his team seemed to lose focus of anything other than the idea they had been cheated and would have to somehow overcompensate for this crime. Sure enough, moments later, Chris Paul foolishly ran out and fouled Russell Westbrook from about 25 feet away, giving him three free-throw attempts that Westbrook converted to provide the Thunder with the margin of victory.
But Rivers was just getting started. After the game, in that now-infamous rant about the Clippers being robbed, River went too far again in magnifying the importance of the officiating error.
"We've got two more games to play, but that was that could be a series-defining call,'' Rivers said while pounding his fist on the table with each of the last few words.
It's one thing to say the refs blew it. It's another thing to say this call may have cost the Clippers a series that is still being played. If it wasn't a series-defining call before then, Rivers certainly made it that way, and you have to wonder how much of that defeatist tone stuck to his team.
Rivers' tone was in direct contrast to the words of Chris Paul, who blamed only himself for the loss after committing two turnovers and that dumb foul in the final 14 seconds. Paul did not support the officials, but he didn't blame them for the entire game either, which is probably how Rivers would have handled it if he could have taken a deeper breath. But in this frenzied two weeks of Clippers turmoil, there has little time for rational thought, few moments for perspective, and the stress of it all finally caught up the coach who is usually so adept at both.
"If you think you can do this without adversity, without obstacles, you're in the wrong game," said Rivers on Wednesday. "It's hard. It's hard."
He was talking about what the message he is delivering his team. Here's guessing, and hoping, he is also reminding himself.
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